image title

The real magic of beans

Peanuts are another good plant-based protein source.
For vegetarians who don't exclude dairy, a whey protein supplement is also good.
October 22, 2019

ASU researchers find mung bean protein supplement improves strength in vegetarians

People have a number of reasons for adopting plant-based diets, from improving their health to concerns about animal treatment to a desire to minimize their carbon footprint. But there is one good reason to be mindful of how they do so: the possibility of becoming nutrient deficient.

“Although vegetarian diets are considered generally protective against chronic disease, nutrient deficiencies, including protein, are possible due to low bioavailability from plant-based sources,” wrote Arizona State University College of Health Solutions professors Carol Johnston and Chris Wharton in a paper published this month in the journal Nutrients.

Bioavailability refers to how easily a nutrient is absorbed, which varies based on the source. Humans are able to absorb protein from animal-based food sources very easily, but it is much harder to absorb protein from plant-based sources, making protein supplementation a priority for those who don’t eat meat.

In a study detailed in their paper, Johnston and Wharton examined the relationship between protein intake, strength and lean body mass (LBM) in 37 underactive vegetarians. For eight weeks, a small subgroup were given a mung bean protein supplement. At the end of the trial, researchers found improved strength among those who took the supplement compared with measures of their strength taken before the trial.

“The most interesting thing here was we were able to increase strength without exercise, by just having people consume a legume,” Johnston said.

The main goal of her research is to increase the governmental recommended daily allowance of protein for those who follow plant-based diets. Johnston explained to ASU Now why it’s harder to absorb protein from plants, other viable protein sources for vegans and vegetarians, and what other nutrient deficiencies they should be concerned about.

ASU Professor

Carol Johnston

Question: Why is it harder to absorb protein from plant-based food sources?

Answer: There are a lot of constituents in plants that hinder the absorption of protein. For example, fiber. Fiber is an antinutrient, meaning it blocks or slows digestion; so it acts as a barrier to absorbing whatever nutrients are around it. There’s no fiber in animal products like meat or dairy, so protein digestion isn’t hindered when we consume animal products, but in plants, it is.

The other thing, along with a reduced ability to digest and absorb protein from plants, is the fact that protein is made up of amino acids, and the amino acid needs of different species — such as animals vs. plants — vary because of differing metabolism requirements. Animal-based foods are almost perfect for humans because we’re also mammals, whereas plants are so different from us as a species that they have different amino acid requirements. So they’re not as suitable sources of nutrients for mammals.

Q: Why mung beans? Are they the best source for plant-based protein, or are there others?

A: Mung beans are a legumeA legume is a plant in the family Fabaceae, or the fruit or seed of such a plant. The most common variety of legumes are beans., which tend to have a higher amounts of protein than other plants, like apples or bananas. So if you’re a vegetarian, you’re encouraged to eat legumes as your protein food source. And mung beans are a legume that can be raised very sustainably, so that was interesting for us, as a large part of Chris’ research area is sustainable food systems. But peanuts are also a good source of plant-based protein; they’re actually one of the best. Really, any legumes are considered to be good protein sources.

Q: Many vegetarians still eat animal-based foods, like milk and cheese, though. Are there any meat-free animal-based foods that are good sources of protein?

A: I would go for a whey protein supplement. Because you can just mix it into your drink and it’s so cheap.

Q: Aside from protein, are there any other nutrient deficiencies vegetarians should be aware of?

A: Oh, yes: B12. It’s a vitamin only found in animal products, mostly meat. When you go to dairy, B12 is there but in lower amounts. When you go to the plant world, there’s none, so that’s a big concern with vegetarians. I tell people, “Don’t even play with that, just take a supplement.” There have been horrendous reports in the research literature about kids raised by vegans who have major mental deficiencies by the time they’re 2 years old because B12 deficiency makes the brain shrink. It can be misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s in adults, which is horrible because a B12 deficiency is totally curable. So all vegetarians need to supplement B12.

Calcium is not usually that big of a problem; you don’t see a lot of calcium deficiency among vegetarians in the U.S., at least, because most vegetarians in the U.S. are still getting an adequate amount of calories, and calcium is also in veggies. Another concern might be Vitamin D, but if you’re getting adequate sun exposure, you should be good with that. In general, I just recommend a good multivitamin supplement to any vegetarian.

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay

image title

New building coatings beat the heat

October 22, 2019

Startup venture emerging from ASU engineering research could make big energy and environmental conservation impact

Aashay Arora and Matthew Aguayo’s promising new technique to make buildings more energy efficient emerged from a project to produce a more resilient concrete for roads.

As Arizona State University engineering doctoral students, Arora and Aguayo had worked with Narayanan Neithalath, a professor of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, to develop a concrete pavement that would be highly resistant to cracking under thermal stress.

What they came up with was a pavement mixture that makes use of phase-change materials, which can transform from solid to liquid and from liquid to solid and be used to store or release heat.

They found the physical and chemical properties of the phase-change materials kept the concrete significantly cooler, and thus much less likely to crack.

That successful experiment made Neithalath wonder if using the same technology could work to keep buildings cooler.

He provided research funding to Arora and Aguayo to investigate if embedding phase-change materials into paint, plaster and stucco — three of the most commonly used coatings for buildings — could maintain comfortable temperatures in the interiors of houses and other structures.

The result of that project is the startup venture EnKoat (Arora and Aguayo’s shorthand for energy saving coatings), which they and Neithalath see as a potential game changer in the energy-efficiency technology industry.

Startup’s aims to produce benefits for environment

Arora and Aguayo are currently conducting more extensive testing of their coatings on the roof of the Agribusiness Center building on ASU’s Polytechnic campus.

Until now, they have been able to test coatings only in the lab and on two “mini houses” on Aguayo’s parents’ property in Casa Grande, south of the Phoenix area.

Although those tests have produced positive results, Arora says coatings applied recently to the Polytechnic campus building will provide the large-scale performance results he and Aguayo hope will attract industry attention.

More than making EnKoat a successful business, Arora and Aguayo aspire to see their venture eventually make a positive and widespread environmental impact.

By reducing the need for electrical power to run conventional heating and air conditioning units, EnKoat’s founders say if their venture can go global it would help keep millions of metric tons of harmful carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere every year.

ASU Director of University Sustainability Practices Mick Dalrymple says there was no hesitation about using Polytechnic campus facilities for EnKoat’s testing project because the startup’s goals align with one of ASU’s key missions: to help communities solve their challenges.

“Climate change is the most critical issue our communities face,” Dalrymple said. “So, providing an environment in which young innovators can test solutions to positively impact all of our futures is not only one of our goals, but our responsibility.”

Two men standing in front of others applying coating to rooftop

Matthew Aguayo (left) and Aashay Arora pose atop the Agribusiness Center building on Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus. They are the founders of EnKoat, a startup venture based on their development of coating materials that reduce energy consumption by insulating building interiors from much of the impacts of outside heat or cold. Photo by Connor McKee/ASU

Phase-change materials are driving force in the coating system

To understand the phase-change process and how it is employed in EnKoat’s building coatings, think of an ice chest full of ice, Arora and Aguayo say. When external temperatures rise and start to enter the ice chest, the ice begins to melt as it absorbs the heat.

Even though the ice is melting, they explain, it is still trying to maintain the temperature inside the ice chest at 32 degrees Fahrenheit — thus activating a solid-to-liquid phase-change process.

So, think of a house as the ice chest. As the temperature rises outside, the coatings begin to absorb the heat rather than letting it go into the building, and thus maintain a cooler temperature inside the house.

The coatings — which are a patent-pending technology developed at ASU — can be customized to achieve maximum energy savings under varying climatic conditions.

Instead of the 32 degrees Fahrenheit being maintained in the ice chest example, the target temperatures for their coatings to maintain inside buildings are between 72 and 78 degrees —  what homeowners would normally set on their homes’ thermostats.

The coatings can also incorporate different types of organic, or bio-based, phase-change materials, such as agricultural feedstock. Use of such renewable resources make the EnKoat coating systems more environmentally sustainable.

The phase-change materials do their work inside the coatings at a microscopic scale, while the surface texture of the coating on walls and roofs remains unchanged.

Next: Fine-tuning the business model

Gerald DaRosa, ASU’s director of energy innovations, calls the system “one of the more exciting energy-efficiency tools” being developed.

“What is unique compared to other phase-change substances we’ve examined is that this material can be infused within construction material, such as stucco or concrete,” DaRosa said. “This could make it easier to apply the material and might also reduce the stress on the construction material caused by temperature swings.”

EnKoat now has three products — stucco for exterior walls, plaster for interior walls and paint for interior walls, exterior walls and roofs.

For maximum effectiveness, buildings need to be coated on all surfaces, Arora says, and the amount of coating necessary will vary with the environmental surroundings outside each building.  

Beyond getting the results of the large-scale testing, he says, “Our target is to fine-tune our business model with the help of industry mentors and get full utility patents issued for our products. We will also seek help from local utility companies to further validate the effectiveness of our coatings and figure out rebates for early adopters.”

Challenges of moving into the marketplace

Arora and Aguayo received their doctoral degrees in civil, environmental and sustainable engineering, with a concentration in structural and materials engineering, at the end of the fall 2018 semester.

In addition to his efforts for EnKoat, Arora is now working with Neithalath as a research specialist and as a faculty associate teaching in the Del E. Webb School of Construction, which is part of the Fulton Schools. Aguayo is making a full-time commitment to EnKoat’s endeavors.

Big challenges still lie ahead for the two young entrepreneurs, says Neithalath, who teaches in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment. On the technical side, it’s critical that EnKoat’s coatings be adapted to be effective on more kinds of building surfaces, especially brick and wood, Neithalath says.

The startup now needs to boost its business prospects by winning additional grants to fund further research and development necessary to move the coating products from the lab to the marketplace.

In addition, experienced industry advisory board members and seed investors must be found, and EnKoat must get its new systems and technologies licensed and then complete agreements with manufacturers.

The end goal, Neithalath says, “is that people should just be able to go to a store and buy the coatings and not need an engineer to tell them how to use it. It must be as simple as possible. Contractors should be given a product they can apply just like stucco, without needing to get special training.” 

Winning support from investors in innovation

The success of Arora and Aguayo’s efforts over the past two years encouraged them to seek support to further develop and scale up their Enkoat entrepreneurial enterprise.

Last spring, Aguayo’s business pitch won a sustainability award at ASU’s Change the World Showcase and Competition, while EnKoat also took the top prize at an ASU Venture Devils Demo Day, which provided $15,000 in funding from ASU’s Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative.

EnKoat’s founders have also participated in both regional and national sessions of the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps training program, which prepares young scientists and engineers to commercialize technological advances being made through their university research projects.

EnKoat placed in the top 42 student-led startups of 2019 at the Rice University’s Business Plan Competition, earning the best elevator pitch and third prize overall at the TYE University Pitchfest Global Competition, which is organized by IndUS Entrepreneurs, a Silicon Valley nonprofit that supports new tech ventures.

Arora and Aguayo also won the first prize of $50,000 in the New Venture Challenge graduate course in ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business.

To top it off, they earned a grant from ASU’s Sustainability Initiatives Revolving Fund, which invests in projects that both foster sustainability efforts and provide an economic return on investment.

Top photo: Workers apply a coating to the roof of a classroom building at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus to conduct a test of the new material’s effectiveness. The coating developed by two recent graduates of ASU's engineering doctoral program is designed to reduce the amount of energy needed maintain cool or warm temperatures inside buildings. Photo by Connor McKee/ASU

Joe Kullman

Science writer , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering